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Tracking herbal remedies

At a point in the 9th century, someone noticed a problem with all those ancient handwritten texts: The scribes had left their Caps Lock on.

Every character had been rendered in uppercase, or, in the terminology of philologists, majuscule. Suddenly, people who could read found this EXTREMELY ANNOYING and clamoured for minuscule script.

This shift created a new industry among the quill pushers of the day who would take mouldy papyrus works – say, the landmark 1st-century herbal by Dioscorides describing 600 medicinal plants – and render them into manuscripts in the new style.

Alain Touwaide, an expert in this field, says this development was an advancement in information technology as momentous as the appearance of digital books in our own time.

Touwaide, with his wife and fellow researcher Emanuela Appetiti, created an organisation named the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions 10 years ago whose mission, in part, has been to study the proliferation of manuscripts after this development.

This subject speaks to a deeply important and interesting aspect of garden history: how our forebears relied on a knowledge of herbs (and to a lesser degree, animal products and minerals) to manage maladies and keep themselves healthy.

Years before the institute was formed, Touwaide came to see a problem: Manuscripts were lost or misfiled, and the actual number of copies of a given text was often significantly understated. Now 63, he has haunted dozens of national, university and private libraries over his career in search of missing or hidden manuscripts.

The result is a new book, essentially an inventory of Greek medical manuscripts spanning the Byzantine Empire between the 5th and 15th centuries.

“A Census of Greek Medical Manuscripts: From Byzantium to the Renaissance” will not make any bestseller list: It is a list of specific manuscripts that Touwaide and Appetiti, a cultural anthropologist, have tracked down, often by going to the libraries that hold them. One entry alone may have taken them days to pin down, especially because they rely on public transportation and may need to visit a monastery on a Greek hilltop somewhere (population: one monk).

The census is an inventory of all known surviving Byzantine medical manuscripts – it lists their titles and locations – and is primarily a tool for other researchers to spread knowledge of horticulture, botany, medicine and literature in the Middle Ages. It took 30 years of concerted effort, Touwaide said, and increases the number of known manuscripts from approximately 1,500 to 2,300, tracked to some 150 locations. Although they were written in Greek during the Byzantine Empire, they record texts dating to 5th century B.C.

Among Touwaide and Appetiti’s richest haunts have been the National Library in Paris and the Vatican Library, though Washington has its own riches in such places as the Library of Congress and the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda. The Austrian National Library is extremely proud of having Codex Vindobonensis, the most impressive of the more than 100 manuscript copies of Dioscorides’ seminal work. An early physician, Dioscorides was so good at identifying the therapeutic value of certain plants that his knowledge is still valued today.

This is more than just an exercise in logging historical documents. No two manuscripts of the same text turned out quite the same, and the fascination is in how they differ. Some of the manuscripts were copied by healers who would add their own pharmaceutical notes based on local practice and knowledge.

Comparing the manuscripts, Touwaide could see that the same plant might have different utility based on its location. This is because herbs take on varying chemical properties based on their terroir and because different human populations developed different genetic tolerance or susceptibilities to disease.

The more a given herbal preparation appears between texts, the higher the probability it’s the correct remedy, Touwaide said. The couple have been based in Washington for 17 years but are moving the institute, formerly affiliated with the Smithsonian, to Southern California, where Touwaide now teaches.

Washington Post-Bloomberg

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